When she spoke to Marshall High School students last week, Lois Quam urged them to find ways to show generosity, and build each other up. It’s a strategy that could help in many areas, from pandemic response to addressing political divisions, she said.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is talk to each other,” Quam said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on every single thing, but we can still be kind and generous towards each other.”
Quam spoke with the Independent last week during her visit to MHS. Quam is a Marshall alumna and is currently CEO of Pathfinder International, a nonprofit that focuses on reproductive health. Before joining Pathfinder, she served as senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Quam was selected to lead President Barack Obama’s Global Health Initiative, which partnered with countries around the world to improve their health systems. She was also the founding CEO of Ovations, a division of health insurer UnitedHealth Group.
The past couple of years have brought a number of challenges for health in the U.S. and around the world, with a major one being the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were not prepared for the pandemic. The lack of preparation led to a lot more hardship,” Quam said.
More than a million Americans have died of COVID, and the hardships could also be felt in disruptions to daily life and education. Quam said one of the things MHS students talked about was missing school. In 2020 and 2021, Marshall Public Schools switched to distance and hybrid learning models, and school activities were also impacted by COVID.
Quam said challenges like the pandemic were “a wake-up call” for better preparation.
“We have to be better prepared, and we have to think about the kind of things that may go wrong and build some flexibility and preparedness into our system,” she said.
Overcoming divisions surrounding topics like COVID would take a willingness to talk and find common ground with each other, Quam said.
“Really it’s that kind of, first of all having a commitment that we want to build our communities together,” she said. “You can’t build that if you’re in two camps. It’s not going to work.”
COVID response has factored into Pathfinder International’s work, too. In Pathfinder’s 2021 annual report, Quam said the organization was “in a state of rapid response” to help prevent gaps in women’s access to reproductive health care during the pandemic. Pathfinder International took an approach of focusing on strengthening health care infrastructure around the world. According to the report, efforts ranged from supporting maternity care and access to contraception, to education about COVID-19 prevention.
Quam said protecting access to reproductive health care was important for helping people to care for their families and their communities. She said she has seen that impact in her own life, starting out in her working career while having three young children.
“And now in the work I do, I sit down often – and pre-pandemic I traveled with – young mothers who are 15 or 16 years old who don’t have that kind of opportunity to care for their children, to care for themselves, to help contribute to the community in that same way. So I think these are really important services,” Quam said.
Quam said the importance of showing generosity and support for others was something she learned while growing up in Marshall. That level of support is something that shows in everything from the city’s schools, to Southwest Minnesota State University and the local business community, she said. It’s also something that future generations could work to continue.
“I think really the future in this country is going to be made if we can take the generosity that Marshall has expressed in its support for its school and its support for its young people, and share that. We’re in a time when there are a lot of people who publicly attack other people, and I just don’t think it’s right. I think we should find ways to build each other, be generous to each other,” Quam said. “And I think that in Marshall we have the opportunity to sit down together and talk things through.”
“I just want to say it’s good to be home,” Quam said of her visit to Marshall. She said she hoped that she and her husband, Reuters journalist Arshad Mohammed, could come back to MHS more often in the future.